Will calorific menus stop us pigging out?
Our Health Minister wants restaurants to list calorie counts. Will this tackle obesity – or ruin a meal out for careful diners? asks Claire O'Mahony
THERE you are after a good meal in a favourite restaurant, pleasantly full but still in the market for a dessert.
Question: are you going to be so readily tempted by the chocolate bread and butter pudding with whipped cream if you see in stark print on the menu that this will add another 600 calories to the 1,400 calories you've already had? Bear in mind that the recommended daily intake is 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men.
It's something Irish diners may well have to deal with in the future should the proposed initiative by Health Minister James Reilly go ahead.
He wants all food outlets, big and small, to put calorie counts on menus, and to introduce legislation to makes sure this happens if restaurateurs don't comply voluntarily.
This measure is already in existence in some parts of the US, Australia and Britain.
While it isn't mandatory here yet, a growing number of Irish eateries are choosing to let their customers see exactly what it is they are consuming and helping them decide as to whether or not they want to skip the Béarnaise sauce.
At the fast-food end of the spectrum, McDonalds introduced calorie displays at some of its outlets last year.
Marks & Spencer's Rooftop Restaurant on Dublin's Grafton Street started putting the calorie count alongside its dishes in November 2012.
One of the country's first restaurants in the country to display calorie counts and other nutritional information on its menus is Bay in Clontarf, Dublin.
Three years ago, in the depths of recession, the restaurant owners saw a niche in the market for healthier dining options and revamped their options.
Allergen and lifestyle symbols denote what dishes are low in salt, high in fibre or coeliac-friendly, for example, while another system of symbols leave dinners in no doubt as to whether they're being good or not, calorifically speaking.
A lot of Bay's menu information is illuminating. What many of us might perceive as a snack in between meals – a scone served with butter, cream and jam – weighs in at 795 calories.
Menu signposting has proved to be a very successful move, according to Bay's manager Julian Chambers, who says that the restaurant has increased its business by 40pc since changing its menu.
"Many people do come here for the healthier offerings but you can indulge if you want. The 'Bay's Breakfast' (free-range eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, baked beans with bread) is 1,173 calories. So you do have the choice," he says.
"A lot of people order according to the calorie count but sometimes people say, 'Hide the calories and don't tell me what they are.' But we have lots of runners and cyclists and we're next door to the gym, so many customers know what they're eating."
Japanese cuisine, with its emphasis on seafood, vegetables and small portions, is generally regarded as one of the healthier cuisines in the world, as borne out by the fact that the Japanese enjoy some of the world's longest life expectancies and low rates of obesity.
At Yamamori Noodles on Dublin's South Great George's Street, calorie counts were introduced on menus late last year, although the restaurant has been offering healthier menu options for quite some time.
In the last two years, brown rice instead of white is served as default – although customers can have white rice if they prefer – and many of the deep-fried dishes have been taken off the menu.
Reading the menu, it's easy to be virtuous by choosing a roast vegetable curry served with steamed rice, which comes in at 592 calories. But it can also help diners avoid dishes that may at first glance appear to be the lighter option but actually are not.
Seafood ramen – wok-fried seafood, including prawn, squid, salmon and tuna, served with wasabi choi sum and grilled seaweed in a shellfish- and miso-flavoured broth – sounds like it's practically calorie-free, but the inclusion of noodles in the dish means that it racks up 901 calories, almost half of the female recommended intake.
Co-owner and chef Satomi Yaginuma says that while there was no real reaction from customers to the menu calorie count in the initial months, people are now increasingly returning to Yamamori Noodles for the restaurant's healthy options.
"Irish customers don't really watch the calories, but we started doing a diabetic-friendly dessert which is very popular with people watching their sugar consumption," she says. "People are starting to care and starting to ask questions."
While she might be keen to educate her customers, she doesn't want to scare them either. The restaurant's tiramusu, which contains 100 calories in comparison to the usual 400 calories, is made from tofu, which is not advertised.
"On the menu we just say it has a Yamamori twist, as we don't want people to be afraid of it," Yaginuma explains. "But people just enjoy it and finish it. We've had no complaints."
Studies would suggest that putting calories on menus does encourage people to cut back on calories. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, research in the United States found that when faced with amount of calories in foods for sale beside price, people ate 152 less calories at hamburger joints; 73 less calories at sandwich bars and 6pc less calories overall each day.
But not all food businesses have found that putting calorie counts on menus changes their customers' choices.
Insomnia Coffee Company, which has 75 stores across the country, introduced calorie counts for its drinks in 2010. This was then rolled out to include its sandwiches and sweet treats.
"We found there was no impact whatsoever, positive or negative. Sales were as strong as ever and there was no discernable difference," says Harry O'Kelly, Insomnia Coffee's CEO.
"Again, with food, there were no discernable differences in anybody's behaviour. But I do think people want to make that informed choice."
Obesity is a huge issue, Mr O'Kelly admits, adding: "As decades go by, everybody will become more and more conscious of healthy eating."
Of course, not all restaurateurs are keen to follow suit. The Restaurant Authority of Ireland takes a dim stance on Dr Reilly's proposal. The RAI's chief executive Adrian Cummins believes that it won't work and that the industry can't afford it, stating that it will cost a minimum of €5,000 per outlet to implement.
"Money isn't growing on trees so where is a small business that is struggling to find that extra money to put calories on menus?" he asks.
He also questions the validity of counting calories as being the best way of assessing something's nutritional value.
"One meal could be highly nutritious and has 500 calories and the other mightn't be but still have 500 calories," he says.
Some nutritionists would agree. While calorie counting is still reckoned to be effective way of combating obesity, 200 calories of jelly babies doesn't have the same benefits that 200 calories of broccoli has, even if the energy measure is the same.
Another deterrent to restaurants adopting calorie counts on their menu is the lack of industry standard.
Rachel Firth, General Manager at Fallon & Byrne, the food hall, deli and restaurant on Dublin's Exchequer Street, says that they have looked into putting calorie counts on their deli food, which is made on the premises, but the lack of a standard system could, she feels, be misleading for consumers as there is no guarantee that that all calorie counts are done in the same way.
"One company I spoke to simply asked for the names of the dishes – however, a fish pie made with double cream has way more calories than one made with a simple vegetable stock. Other companies use a Weight Watchers-style database to key in the components of a dish to work out the calories and a third company I spoke to sent the dishes for lab testing," she says. "We are very keen on being transparent but there needs to be an agreed industry standard so the consumer knows that they are comparing like with like."
Going back to the initial question as to whether an informed view about dietary decisions might also be an appetite suppressant, Fallon & Byrne's Firth maintains that in-your-face calorie counts may take some of the fun out of dining out.
She adds: "Diners know a Knickerbocker Glory isn't the healthiest option, but they may have gone on a 10km jog that morning so it all has to be taken in context."
Health & Living